Well, not exactly just three, but Konam’s creative spin pits a mama pig and her kids against a ravenous band of wolves intent on kidnapping the rest of them using balloons. Yes, balloons.
Released in 1982 and licensed by Stern Electronics from Konami for manufacture and sale to arcades in the United States, Pooyan (which apparently means “little pigs” in Japanese) stars the player as the mama pig in a carriage raised and lowered along the right side of the screen via a rope mechanism handled by other pigs. She’s armed with a limitless amount of arrows with which the player uses to pop the balloons of the wolves as they drop from the giant tree branch above or float up from below depending on the stage.
The first stage has a horde of wolves dropping down from a giant tree branch using balloons to safely float to the bottom where they run off to the right side of the screen and climb a ladder into one of the spots where they can attack the mama pig from behind, making movement dangerous.
After successfully fending off a quota of wolves and watching a short scene, the second stage pits her against wolves using balloons to float up to a cliff where a giant rock awaits. If enough wolves make it to the top, they’ll push the rock over the edge to the right, dropping it down on top of the mama pig’s carriage. If the player is successful, they’re rewarded with another animated interlude before hitting the bonus stage for additional points. Right after that, the whole thing begins over again at a higher difficulty, raising the normal quota of 32 wolves to stop to 40.
Our heroine has a few advantages to help her out. There’s a giant meat stick that occasionally appears at the top of the cliff behind her that she can use to hurl at wolves, instantly knocking them from the sky as it arcs down to the ground creating possibilities for multiple hits. She’s also in a carriage with a tough roof that can help guard her from the rocks thrown by the wolves, but she can also shoot the rocks if the player is quick enough.
Dying takes away one of her lives, but the game picks up with the current quota of wolves that are left — it doesn’t completely reset. But like a lot of old school arcade games, once you’ve run out of lives, all you have to look forward to is hoping that you’ve scored high enough to enter your initials for the high score table.
The wolves also have a few tricks of their own. Some balloons in the later stages can take multiple hits. They’re also arrow-proof: only shooting the balloon works, and sometimes, they can deflect your shots.
On the other hand, deflected shots are sent downwards which can be handy if there’s a wolf right below the one you’re trying to stop. “Boss” wolves in purple are also tough to kill as they’re able to deflect multiple shots before you can nail their balloon. In the second stage with the giant rock, they’re technically the last wolf you need to stop and failing that resets the counter to five wolves to fight off if you still have an extra life to try again.
It may sound like a lot, but Pooyan’s simplicity made it extremely easy to pick up and play. It had creative sprites, great music, and a fun challenge that kept going as long a the player could keep popping those balloons. As a Konami title, it was a preview to the kind of action they brought to the table and would later expand on with other games. Old cabs still popped up in the arcades years after its release because of how fun it was, sharing its unique creativity with players like myself stumbling across these classics.
Pooyan was eventually ported to a huge number of platforms over the years ranging from the Apple II and the Atari 2600 to the Wii’s Virtual Console (as a Japan-only exclusive for the latter, unfortunately). There’s even a fan made remake that was released for free for Windows PCs thanks to an outfit called Underware Design, though it takes a few liberties with the original. For one thing, the pacing is a lot faster and there are a lot more balloons to shoot down. On the plus side, you now fire arrows as if your bow were a machined delivery system of death to try and keep up, though on a personal level, prefer the arcade version’s pacing.
As a clever shooter, Pooyan’s classic challenge holds up even today. Instead of wolves huffing and puffing houses down, they’re getting organized, using balloons, and the pigs react by using a winch, carriage, and a mess of arrows to defend themselves with. Still sounds like a lot of fun to me.